What’s Happening with Pacific Sardine?

Pacific sardine
Pacific sardine

Last month, the National Marine Fisheries Service closed the large-volume commercial Pacific sardine fishery in state and federal waters off California, Oregon, and Washington until at least July 2016. This lucrative fishery brought in over $40 million to California only eight years ago. Pacific sardine biomass has decreased since then and is now too low to support large volume fishing, forcing fishery managers to close the fishery to protect the population. What happened to the Pacific sardine, and how are the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW’s) fishery managers helping to protect this small pelagic fish, which plays an integral role in the Pacific Ocean’s food web and in fishing communities coastwide?

The Pacific sardine fishery in California was actively managed by the CDFW until 2000, when it was incorporated into the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s (Council) Coastal Pelagic Species Fishery Management Plan. Since then, the fishery has been actively co-managed by the Council, the National Marine Fisheries Service, CDFW, and Oregon and Washington’s Fish and Wildlife agencies.

Pacific sardine is assessed annually as a part of the Council process. The assessment is used to develop recommendations for annual harvest specifications for the West Coast commercial fishery. At its April meeting, the Council officially adopted the 2015 assessment, which included a biomass (population) projection of less than 97,000 metric tons as the best available science.

Current harvest control rules prohibit large-volume sardine fishing when the biomass falls below 150,000 metric tons. The Council recommended a seasonal catch limit that allows for only incidental commercial landings, as well as fish caught in the tribal, live bait, or recreational fisheries during the 2015-2016 season, which will begin July 1, 2015 and run through June 30, 2016.

Additionally, in consideration of the revised stock biomass information and landings data for the current season, the Council requested that the National Marine Fisheries Service close all large volume commercial fishing for Pacific sardine in the 2014-15 season as quickly as possible. This closure took effect on April 28, 2015.

The biomass and commercial catch of Pacific sardine has fluctuated since the early 1900s. These fluctuations are primarily due to natural, large-scale changes in oceanic temperature, which have been occurring on a decadal scale for thousands of years. Over the past couple of years, the biomass of Pacific sardine has been declining and all co-managers have been monitoring the fishery closely. Changes in ocean temperatures have been negatively impacting the species’ production in recent years, which has contributed to the decrease in biomass.

While the estimated biomass is relatively low, the stock is not considered to be overfished. The early closure of the 2014-15 fishing season and the prohibition of directed fishing during the 2015-16 season will serve as precautionary management measures to prevent the stock from entering an overfished state.

CDFW distributed a news release announcing these closures on Wednesday April 29, 2015.

For more information about Pacific sardine history, research, and management in California, please visits CDFW’s Pacific sardine web page.

post by Anna Holder, CDFW Environmental Scientist    photo courtesy SWFSC, NOAA Fisheries